Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Believed that evil was a dominant force in the world—his work is dark, gloomy and pessimistic.
  • Born in Salem, Mass., descended from a prominent Puritan family. One ancestor was a judge at the Salem Witch Trials, another was known for his persecution of Quakers.
  • For twelve years secluded himself in his mother’s house and worked on his writing.
  • Married and moved to Concord, Mass.
  • Friends with Emerson and Thoreau, but his philosophy differed dramatically from theirs.
  • 1850 published his masterpiece – The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne’s Style

  • Hawthorne is typical of the nineteenth century romantics. Like them, his stories deal with the strange and the mysterious; involve symbolic imagination; turn to the past for subject matter (Puritan New England).
  • Hawthorne focuses his attention on the problem of evil and the nature of sin. He is not a moralist, but like a psychologist he analyzes the inner world of the human mind and heart.
  • Hawthorne’s stories begin with a simple idea, like guilt. This idea is developed by complex personal relationships between the characters and by symbolism. This symbolic story eventually leads to a probing of the mysteries within the human mind.
  • In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne analyzes the effect of one sin on the four main characters who are closely intertwined because of that sin.
  • The Scarlet Letter has a unity of place. All action occurs in the center of Boston and the outskirts of this village. There are three scaffold scenes: one in the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end. In each of these scenes the four main characters are present, and the changes in each are shown.
  • Hawthorne displays a formal use of language with a precise word choice; although the sentences are long and complex, they are logical and clear.
  • Hawthorne uses images frequently to create the mood and emphasize his ideas.
  • The narrator tells most of the story in the form of a summary. Between the passages of explanation by the narrator are poignant, dramatic scenes. At times Hawthorne interrupts the narration to give background information that explains ideas about the time. On other occasions, speaking directly to the reader, Hawthorne even gives a choice of interpretations. The reader can decide what is literally true and what is a device to create a supernatural or symbolic effect.

The Seven Deadly Sins

  • Pride: Excessive belief in one’s own abilities that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It is called the sin from which all others arise. Also called Vanity.
  • Envy: The desire for other’s traits, status, abilities or station.
  • Gluttony: The desire to consume more than what one requires.
  • Lust: Inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.
  • Anger: Individual who spurns love and chooses fury. Also known as Wrath.
  • Greed: The desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. Also called Avarice or Covetousness.
  • Sloth: The avoidance of physical or spiritual work.

Mortal & Venial Sins

  • Mortal Sin: All sin is an offense against God and a rejection of his perfect love and justice.
  • Jesus makes a distinction between two types of sins. The most serious and grave sins are mortal sins. Mortal sins destroy the grace of God in the heart of the sinner. By their very grave nature, a mortal sin cuts off our relationship from God and turns man away from his creator.
  • In order for a sin to be mortal, it must meet three conditions: Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter; Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner; Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner
  • Venial Sin: Venial sins are slight sins. They do not break our friendship with God, although they injure it. They involve disobedience of the law of God in slight (venial) matters.

Symbols: The Scarlet Letter “A”

  • Hester’s scarlet letter is a hardworking symbol. At various times, it symbolizes adultery, sin, hard work, skill, charity, righteousness, sacredness, and, of course, grace.
  • It begins as a punishment, a symbol of her adultery, but Hester accepts her punishment, embroiders the letter beautifully and wears it without shame. In time, her good works change the scarlet letter from a symbol of sin to a symbol of her goodness and humanity. The townspeople who branded her as an adulteress come to consider it to mean “Able”.

Symbols: The Prison & the Rosebush

  • The prison door symbolizes the harshness of the Puritan lifestyle and their righteous indignation and punishment of sin. But right outside the prison door is a beautiful rosebush which symbolizes the possibility of forgiveness or God’s grace.

Symbols: Pearl

  • Pearl is a character in the novel, but she (and her name) are symbolic. She is a “pearl of great price”. Hester gained her daughter after enduring childbirth, prison, scorn and punishment. But despite the scandal of her birth, Pearl brings Hester great joy.
  • For Dimmesdale, Pearl is a living, breathing reminder of the sin he cannot confess. But by the end of the novel, when Pearl kisses her dying father after he finally acknowledges her and his sin, her tears fall on him and she symbolizes forgiveness.

Symbols: The Meteor

  • Does a red “A” really appear in the sky above Boston? It would seem so and it is a natural phenomenon that is seen as a supernatural sign, interpreted differently depending upon the state of your soul.
  • For Dimmesdale, the “A” stands for adulterer. He is on the scaffold in the center of town with Hester and Pearl. The town may not see them, but God does, and God knows Dimmesdale has yet to confess his sin.
  • For the town, the “A” means Angel and is a sign marking the death of the governor.

Symbols: The Black Man & the Forest

  • The Black Man is Satan. The Puritans were obsessed with the idea of good and evil. If you chose evil you signed your name to the Black Man’s book.
  • The forest represents the unknown, passion and emotion. It is outside the civilized town which represents religion and law. The forest is home to evil such as the Black Man. Note that Hester, the outcast, lived on the edges of the forest.

Themes: The Nature of Sin

  • When society creates laws that deny the expression of the inner needs of individuals, rebellion is a natural outcome. The society of the Puritans forbids the expression of passion; Hester and Dimmesdale’s act of passion is a reaction against this rigidity.
  • The novel explores the psychological effects of sin on the individual. Sin results in the physical deterioration of the sinner. Acts become sinful not only because they violate others, but also because they violate the individual’s inner laws. Hester feels her unacceptability to others as a result of her sin; she deliberately becomes less beautiful. Dimmesdale’s guilt and self-defeat lead to his physical illness. Chillingworth’s revenge results in his warped ugliness. In general, the sinner becomes lonely, confused, and weakened against further temptation.
  • Sin can also strengthen and humanize the sinner. Hawthorne allows for the possibility of redemption, but only through the individual’s acknowledgment of guilt and repentance. The idea that atonement (peace) can come through doing good deeds is in question.

Themes: Individual & Society

  • Another thematic aspect of The Scarlet Letter is Hawthorne’s reaction to several Romantic ideas. Hawthorne explores the individual’s relationship to society. As humans, we need to feel a connection to others. Pearl, the child of nature who knows no rules, is trapped outside of society. To become a part of human society, however, she must share in the sorrow of other humans. Only after joining humanity is Pearl able to cry.
  • People cannot be self-reliant. They have a sense of others, which creates their self image and need for approval. Dimmesdale’s torment comes from his misrepresentation of himself to others. Although Hawthorne has the reader sympathize with Hester, the individual who rebels against society, she lives a solitary life on the edge of a forest. He points out the loneliness and shame that are associated with breaking a law.

Themes: Innocence

  • Hawthorne also rejects the Romantic idea that humans are born innocent. The natural impulses of Hester and Dimmesdale lead to the sin of adultery. Hawthorne does, however, agree with Romantics in his glorification of the heart above the intellect. Chillingworth represents the cold, calculating logic that is untempered by feelings of the heart.
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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